Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Leopardi wrote that, in the eyes of the young, the future is a monstrous, empty space. It is a thing inherently absurd and to be dreaded on all counts. But what the young lack, by way of perspective, is a past such as the old have, one of experiences good and bad; and as the old have had enough of life they will have had enough of undue expectations &c. Well, nice of the man to say so. Leopardi wrote that lives of philosophical reflection play into the hands of tyranny. Lives that have a penchant for action are what the tyrant fears. He also wrote that literary glory is sweet when it can be savoured in ‘the silence of the study’, because the silence conserves the power of the illusion; whereas the glory to be enjoyed in public, in society ‘turns out to be nothing, or very small, or incapable, in short, of fulfilling the spirit and satisfying it.’ But then Leopardi was not writing of the peculiarities of our prize culture. 

Still from The Man with a Movie Camera

Still from The Man with a Movie Camera

And he did not write of the world one sees in the cinematic bravura of The Man with a Movie Camera, a celebration of Soviet life from the late 1920s. He did not write of the world that was the antithesis of his pessimism, as he predeceased it by 90 years. The film was a butcher’s cleaver intent on separating cinema from theatre and literature; on knocking away the crutches on which bourgeoisie states of mind depend. (Facebook did not yet exist, and even Wordsworth in his day – early 19th century days – regarded the news cycle as much too quickly paced, and it was going to tip the people into all sorts of manias which, apparently, it has.) It is undeniable that the experiment in film captured the faith of a proletariat in a workable future by way of their capacity for industrial endeavour and sport and play and drinking lots of beer. They lived by their hands, which is to say that, among other things, they could pretty much see the worth of their labour; it was not something that would instantly disappear into a virtual la-la land via the computer. There is a lot of poetry leaping about Nijinsky-like in the film, the camera eye sweeping from heavy machinery to trains to dressing oneself in the morning to nap-time on a park bench; to getting on and off a great many trams, to clinking beer mugs. Urban rhythms, urban energies. Still, it is arguable that it was left to the offices of literature and theatre to tell the story of the failure of the worker’s state and the concomitant disillusion, the Stalin era crowning all that with its purges and slaughters and repressions; and then there were all those millions lost on the battlefronts of the Second World War. In any case, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, in the 2013 Farrar, Giroux and Strauss translation, maxes out at some 2000 plus pages, all of them, as with the aforementioned cinema, eschewing fiction—

London Lunar more than once has written me to the effect that the new fiction eschews fiction too. I have avoided reading a great deal of it over the years in favour of reading unalloyed history texts and such. But can odoratus, which means sweet-smelling, and is an adjective in usage, be anything but a participle? Well, there you have it, the sort of thing that Leopardi employed against spiritual exhaustion and a little education— 

I recently woke one morning thinking that the world’s sleaze factor had increased exponentially from the day before, what with the primaries in progress, what with Syria and the Ghomeshi trial. And what about comedians in cars getting coffee and effecting the equivalence of the agora as per Socrates cracking wise with his set-up men? Did I truly want to get out of bed for that? I read in Froissart of a rich person who, in Middle Ages times, his town besieged, offered his life in exchange for the lives of the lesser well-off townspeople. I reread the passage several times so as to make sure I was not dreaming. Although I am usually late in getting around to sampling what is on offer in the public sphere by way of Arts and Entertainment, I finished a viewing of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States in ten episodes and two prequels. Despite what mixed feelings I have about Mr Stone’s cinematic efforts, this documentary series is more thoughtful than I was expecting; and it was two days worth of unmitigated horror, that and Harry S Truman. 

I also had occasion to view a Brit flick of the life of John Fahey, the so-called American primitive guitarist, and it was a ghastly business, how the flick made of the man some cult parody of genius. The production was God-awful poor, in any case, as if it was the cooler, hipper, more authentic thing to do to not really give a rat’s ass for the subject of one’s subject matter. In Search of Blind Joe Death is the flick’s working title. (Blind Joe Death was a soubriquet Fahey used so as to throw folklorists off the scent. A pity it proved ineffective after his demise.) An old friend wrote me to say that she had seen Fahey perform way back when at the Queen E in Vancouver, and either he was warming up for Van Morrison or it was the other way around; but that in her estimation he stole the march, bare feet, cargo pants, horizontally-striped jersey and all—

Morning. Nikas. Irish Harpy asks me if I was out and about the night before, that is to say, drinking. Come to think of it, I had been up to no good. Bugatti Don and the Moesian were my accomplices in the madness, in the various social scenarios swirling about Hurley’s such as could have been painted (group portraits of late-stage capitalists up-and-coming or down-and-going) by Rembrandt. One such group of young’uns at a large table was arrayed just so against a wall, was perfectly poised for a Rembrandtian venture, except perhaps for the baseball caps. Our conversation was kicked off with a foray into quantum cosmology and more or less ended with the Ghomeshi trial, the female defense lawyer of which intrigued Bugatti Don more than is healthy. Now Brussels has no soul; its technocrats would dictate to, say, Catalonians who have no desire to let Barcelona represent them at the European parliament. Facebook makes us tribally rabid, and democratic institutions are being bashed apart by forces no one seems to understand irrespective of all the opining. Pornography is declared a health crisis here and there. And all of the immediately above is just a way to indicate that the Ghomeshi trial, and we here have no doubt as to the man’s sleaziness whether or not he is guilty of rape, is an undertaking that puts new spin on the notion of ‘show trial’ inasmuch as its constituents have a limelight to play to; inasmuch as justice is not likely to be served but that there will be plenty of ‘law’, and the new Puritanism that has been the CBC will continue to camouflage who knows what hanky-panky in the elevator and the parking lot. Later, having repaired to Bugatti Don’s lair, more beer was quaffed and grotty poets were read aloud, among them Auden, Lowell, Larkin, Gilbert, and Capshaw the ukuleleist, all the while the ethereal-earthy voice of Emmy Lou Harris augmented the silences between the grotty passages rendered up and played havoc with our hearts. 


Norm Sibum's first novel, The Traymore Rooms, is available here.

Ephemeris

Golden Girl and the Shillong Kid back from India, and seemingly no worse for wear,

invited me to see a flick. The Big Short was on offer, filmic treatment of the months leading up to the Great Bubble Burst in 2008, as when the economy began to cannibalize its gears.

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Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

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Winter by Jasper Johns

If you have been thinking there must be something more to life than culture wars, the chances are good you have a point to carry at your next fondue party. Moreover, you might find yourself receptive to the cheese in a recent Chris Hedges  screed at Truthdig. It has neo-liberalism in its sights and the liberals who sold out the franchise. For all that, Mr Hedges is a dour and humourless man of words, given to finger-wagging at mild-mannered academics and artists and the like who are, perhaps, more interested in tenure and grants and PC protocols than in matters of economic justice. I wonder if I might not find his revolution-to-come as stifling and trifling to the spirit as a catechism class on anti-depressants. As for Trump and all things Trumpery, this man is not necessarily the fascist who seems to be giving a fair number of talking-heads the heebie-jeebies of late, but he, with a little help from his cohorts out there on La-La Drive, just might have the dirty 30’s stashed in his vest pocket like so many loaded dice, a game of craps in the offing. Could be. Just that we here are a little leery of calling out that the sky is falling, though it does seem a little askew—

Morning. Nikas. Rain and gloom enough. And it is as if the middle parts of the fair nation-state collapsed, the west coast rubbing shoulders with Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. Eddie the cook’s foray into the construction world seems to have been rather a short foray, as he is re-established in the kitchen, cracking jokes aplenty, Irish Harpy all smiles, her morning coffee no hollow ritual now. I still have not succeeded in explaining to myself how it is that poets like Yeats and Pound managed to get themselves transfixed by fascism’s hypnotic glare, but now and then a glimmer of an answer teases me, usually when I am in the presence of TV fodder and the more gamey offerings of pop culture in conjunction with ‘shaming’ politics; and then one might throw up one’s arms and surrender wholesale to the Life of the Mind; and still, nothing is explained. Himself an entertainer, Trump aids and abets mass delinquency when it comes to any Thinking Man’s Guide-To-Any-Endeavour. He is not likely to go all Leonardo da Vinci on you, and the ten million dollar Renoir that he owns is simply that: ten million sassy dollars, not upstart art. Yeats was attracted to ‘men of action’ over and above those who sat around and stewed in their intellectual funks and so, for a short while, Mussolini won him over, that is, until fascism’s darker side became more evident and the Nazis started showing their truest colours. Would Pound have viewed Trump as a grotesque clown or as someone with virtues to extol, seeing as the latter man, this most American of Americans (save for the hickory Americans of which Pound was probably a late instance), is apparently free of all equivocation? I have no idea. But is it not the great temptation, even in men and women who could care less about scoring points, to speak one’s mind, and delusion and hypocrisy shrivel away into so much nothingness?

Otherwise, from an unexpected source, received: the pope’s encyclical on the environment and climate change, as per the following:

Encyclical Letter

Laudato Si’

Of the Holy Father

Francis

on care for our common home—

Unexpected, because the source is such a strict materialist, even, how shall we say, inimical to the church. Yet, he believes this example of papal thinking to be unparalleled, even in the secular world. Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature &c. Well, shiver me timbers. Moreover, Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has been singing the praises of my source’s poetry which you may find in Mr Kurp’s ‘older posts’ with respect to Robert Melançon, one of Quebec’s best kept secrets—

I have been investigating Marius Kociejowski’s Zoroaster’s Children, Biblioasis, 2015 for suspicious cargo, as it is a book of travel writings and other musings. If I find anything untoward I will let you know—

Bugatti Don dropped by the other evening, full of his inner  Mcgravitas vis-à-vis mass shootings, Polish novels and bad poetry. He behaved himself and vacated the premises early—

The ruminations of Bartolomé de las Casas in his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is dreadful reading on account of the fact that it is so relentlessly grim. It seems a wonder that there was anything alive left moving after the Spanish had completed their initial innings on the New World continent. Not even a mouse

The passing years will, no doubt, pacify this ghost in time. And, when the years have passed, there will gape the uncomfortable and unpredictable dark void of death, and into this I shall at last fall headlong, down and down and down, and the prospect of that fall, that taking off into so blank an unknown, drowns me in mortal fear and mortal grief. After all, life, for all its agonies and despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again—

from The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macauley, 1956, and it has nothing to do with Spaniards of the 16th Century and a bit to do with the ‘Happiest Decade’, comprised as it was of TV’s golden era, Beatniks and baseball, Presley, and Joe McCarthy, among other things; you know, those 50s; Soviet tanks, B-52s, Pepsi’s Cold War; the 50s when the liberal mind, even so, was not the equivalence of a toady living in abject terror of offending the wrong parties, persons who could be of any persuasion, depending on the time of day and the seating arrangements; when the conservative mentality understood the limits of American power. I myself suffer from a mild disposition—

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Gone: Christopher Middleton, poet and translator, 1926 – 2015. My patience for poetics has long been minimal, but when someone put in my hands Mr Middleton’s musings on what poetry is or is not, I believed then and still believe that they are the finest I have ever come across. I have in mind his Jackdaw Diving, Carcanet Press (my copy of which seems to have been pinched from my shelf by an unknown book thief), and Palavers & A Nocturnal Journal, Shearsman Books. The link below will whisk you on its magic carpet to an obituary, courtesy of Marius Kociejowski, a true believer, who fought tooth and nail with one of the editors of said gazette just to get a minimal survey of the man’s accomplishments across to the reading public—

Link

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Left to right: Marius Kociejowski and Christopher Middleton. Photo by Tony Fraser, 2005.


Norm Sibum has washed his baseball cap recently. His novel is The Traymore Rooms.

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Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Weep for Irish Harpy. Morning. Nikas. The heartthrob of her retirement years – Eddie the cook – has gone into the construction trade. So much goes on in this world: nation-building, nation-bashing, austerity finance, identity politics, migrating cooks. No doubt the woman’s daily retinue – her retiree of a husband and her enigma of a son – are not that much cut up over Eddie the cook having flown the coop, but will the new cook know how to poach an egg? She is a tall, sinewy, stringbean of a woman, this Irish Harpy, good-hearted mostly under her knee-jerk politics that veer rightward throughout the course of most news cycles. Still, I am quite willing to wager that bantering with Eddie, refugee from whatever was Albania, was very often the high point of her day—Otherwise, received: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolomé de las Casas. I bought it in a fit of sentimentality, seeing as so many books I have read over the years have made mention of the book, and I thought I may as well read the thing myself than get its import secondhand. So I read the introduction in a bar on Bishop Street, one of those so-called Irish joints, and sure enough, my head was sent spinning with the usual aromatic whiff of blood and burning flesh such as accompany so many inaugural sojourns into the New World. But you know – a long time ago in a galaxy far far away—From The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno: 

I know that all this is dull reading, tiresome, perhaps tedious, but it is all necessary. And I must repeat once again that we have nothing to do with a transcendental police system or with the conversion of God into a great Judge or Policeman—that is to say, we are not concerned with heaven or hell considered as buttresses to shore up our poor earthly morality, nor are we concerned with anything egoistic or personal. It is not I myself alone, it is the whole human race that is involved, it is the ultimate finality of all our civilization. I am but one, but all men are I’s. / Do you remember the end of that Song of the Wild Cock which Leopardi wrote in prose?—the despairing Leopardi, the victim of reason, who never succeeded in achieving belief? “A time will come,” he says, “when this Universe and Nature itself will be extinguished. And just as of the grandest kingdoms and empires of mankind and the marvelous things achieved therein, very famous in their own time, no vestige or memory remains today, so, in like manner, of the entire world and of the vicissitudes and calamities of all created things there will remain not a single trace, but a naked silence and a most profound stillness will fill the immensity of space—&c. 

Giacomo Leopardi

Unamuno goes on to invoke the then new scientific and rationalistic term for nothingness i.e. the thing that was entropia, and a pretty picture it was. And then by implication: how we can neither live with reason nor without it, and this was the ancient ‘irreconcilable conflict between reason and vital feeling’. In any case, just saying. Irish Harpy’s secret lamentations have put me in a mood. Now was Walt Whitman as grand a poet as all that or a joke? And I ask myself: ought I to grab onto all three big volumes of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War? (The American one.) P.M. Carpenter, Distinguished Political Commentator to the south of here, in his commentaries has been unceasingly thanking God or Whomever for Donald Trump, red meat boon to a pundit’s appetite for reveling in the great unraveling of a certain political party, and for making things, if nothing else, interesting. “Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes”—Or so the American bard had it, as if he had had a precognition of the media circus and the disintegrations of so much—



Norm Sibum writes the column Ephemeris.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Received: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, a book I once owned and certainly read. But then I lent it out and never saw it again. Go ahead, play patron to the arts and culture, see where it gets you. Now as I intend to re-read the book, I wonder if ‘Orientalism’ will infect me? Will the spirit of the text violate a building code that has come into play since I last clapped my eyes on the thing?

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 Received: The Assassination of Julius Caesar, A People’s History of Ancient Rome. Michael Parenti, The New Press, 2003. Here is a book with a chip on its shoulder. The thing is, except for that chip, the writing is quite lucid; and, in general, I find myself agreeing with the spirit of the author’s assertions, if not all his arguments. That the patricians, in particular the optimates (the one per centers of the day) were sonsofbitches, the plebs screwed at every turn. That Julius Caesar’s regard for the ‘people’ was at least halfways sincere above and beyond his regard for his own political advancement. That Cicero was a scumbag, this homo novus who stood to lose ground in Caesar’s new world, so he played both sides of the fence just in case. That Cato and his buddies were unregenerate hypocrites, talking up the republic and civic virtue and such and lining their pockets every chance they got. Mr Parenti accuses both ancient and modern historians of grossly misrepresenting the reality of the empire, and his charges go hard against Gibbon as well as Mommsen and even some present-dayers who ought to know better, not to mention the ancient annalists who thought the rabble unworthy of their attentions. He has it in for the poets, Shakespeare, too, the Bard having backed the wrong set of Romans, Friends, Countrymen, your ears, please in his tragedy Julius Caesar, the common people all too easily snowed by groovy rhetoric. Poets, writers of history, the bankers – the lot of them thought the plebs incapable of political judgment and so, dismissible. True enough, it is easy to say ‘I’m screwed’, just as it is easy to be spiritual. But screwed in what ways, why, and to what end? If the plebs always get the shaft, the plebs are not intrinsically better at governance than anyone else, though these days what is there to choose between? (‘You can tweet a revolution, but you cannot tweet a government’ – this a quote from a Mr Krastev and the opinion page of The NY Times.) 

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Received: Rome, a Methuen & Co. book from another far distant epoch, written by Edward Hutton. Who was one of those turn of the century aesthetes traipsing around Europe, giving themselves to overripe prose with respect to the overripe ruins. The above Mr Parenti, no doubt, would slight the man for viewing Brutus as an honorable sort devoted to the preservation of the republic (when all he and his peers were up to was running interference for their privileges) and of seeing Julius Caesar as betraying his class. Mr Hutton, however fey his adverbs, did not seem all that predisposed to romanticizing the Roman past, its ruins excepted; he was not blind to the brutalities of a rigged system, though when he writes the best and worst of human behaviour that was Rome, perhaps a bit of teary-eyed mist can be seen to enshroud a sentiment. Otherwise, you can relax, as we here are not necessarily recommending the book unless one wishes some intimacy with how certain people thought at a certain time about certain things—

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Received: The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macauley, a feminist and off and on believer in the Deity. This book was published two years before her death in 1958, and is considered the best of her 39 books. Yet another poet thought my life needed comic relief and so, voilà: the book and its send-up of Christianity, Catholics and Anglicans in particular. The chuckles one derives from reading it are of the stealth variety: you find yourself laughing before you realize you are laughing. But there is also much whimsy in the book in conjunction with a deep sense of the tragic, and then the laughter mutes, the peanut gallery rendered silent, the imponderables in control—

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Received: Zoroaster’s Children, Biblioasis, 2015, Marius Kociejowski. Travel essays. A continuation of the well-received Pebble’s Chance, published by the same press. More on this anon. Received: Various volumes, academic, on aspects of ancient Rome life and imperial policy, and all I will say for them is that I am on my usual fool’s errand, hunting for prime analogies between two empires widely separated by oodles of time—

Now, London “Twinkletoes” Lunar was seen doing Swan Lake to a bellydancer’s belly dance in a Moroccan dive on Front St in a major Canadian metropolis. A happy spectacle it was, if somewhat alarming. She had invited; he accepted, Uncle Dan kindly picking up the dinner tab, this after he nuked any remaining sub-traces of romanticism that I might still have had in me concerning the literary world. (We writers are so naïve. Do we not know that publishing has nothing to do with anything but the management of disappointment?) He described the relentless pressures that are put upon the editors of the larger presses to produce best-sellers. A book, to hear the man tell it, must be seen to make for itself a hundred thousand smackeroos at least so as to justify the trouble of bothering with it. You can see how this eventually skewers things. Literary quality does not guarantee sales, but trash generally sells, so go west, young man, or young lady. And then there is God’s little acre of ‘good bad books’ which on occasion catch on; and then there is self-indulgence that is paraded about as high art and the reviewers get their ducks in a row; and then there are literary territories attended to by alien laws of physics about which we here have nothing intelligent to say but that, nonetheless, now and then succeed in holding the mind hostage—

Received, as it was received, and by way of Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence, an article somewhat about John Fahey the guitarist, American Primitive, but also about Geeshie Wiley, a female ‘deep blues’ singer of the 20s whose ‘Last Kind Words Blues’ certainly haunts. It is blues played in a minor key mode. And I learned that ‘kind’ in this instance does not mean ‘nice’ but ‘in kind’ or ‘back at you’, the implication being that some blues tends to preserve the more archaic meanings of words—

And we do wish to circle back to Leopardi and his Zibaldone one of these days, and return to the man’s dry asides on the human condition, but we have been waylaid by the now worn-in notion that economics trumps and determines power and not the other way around, as it was for the Italian poet and thinker. “Inverted totalitarianism,” said Mr Sheldon Wolin not so long ago, he a radical philosopher, if no Marxist. Mr Wolin: 

Hobbes had it right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they yearn for political stability rather than civic engagement, protection rather than political involvement, 

smartly-written novels rather than Crime and Punishment. &c. Well, there’s a thought. And I have always contended that post-modernism (I seem to the last man to still be picking on this particular chapter of human evolution) was not a snubbing of power so much as a capitulation to it, a hankering to have pride of place on power’s dance card; hence the great vacuum we all of us inhabit, that would be a vacuum was it not for the bloated and rotting corpse of the imagination smack dab on the premises. Not that we lack for good writing; there is good writing. Now and then an act of cinema reminds us that film-making is sometimes an art. I have lived these past twenty-some years with a painter who has taught me what it truly means to have artistic integrity, not some parody of the thing that one trots out when the occasion requires it. For all that, it is a world where first principles no longer apply and there is no such animal as consequence and Houses of Cards do not fall down, they double down; just that, without first principles, no matter how often one gets something right, one is always wrong. Quick, grab another selfie, do the market proud




Norm Sibum writes Ephemeris and has read about Rome more than most.

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Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

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There was the so-called blood moon which occupied our eyes from McGravitas’s rooftop terrace. Quasi-pagans gathered beneath a starry sky of small aircraft and their blinking lights; a sky busy with questions. Were we creatures with a yen for religious feeling now and then? Were we just partiers, any excuse for a fete? Beer, pizza, smokes. Oh, the casual science behind the spectacle above us where the moon was being devoured by the shadow of the earth; oh, the awe in vastly disproportionate amounts to the every day humdrum of that science; cameras with flash; oh, the suddenly mortal voices of the boys and girls now tremulous, now thinning out to the sky growing darker. Enjoy those beers: they could be your last. And: oh, wow, oh look. The moon is not a disk so as much as it is a ball, its burgeoning roundness almost menacing. Who would have thought it such a special effect? Could that lunar imagery give a boost to the word elegiac? Mais oui. And it’s made of cheese, didn’t you know? It ain’t easy bein’ cheesy, you know. Oh, the science that has subsumed so much of a literature that capitulated to it. But whatever else might be said, and whether or not one’s thoughts were operating within or without the confines of Atlantic brogue, one understood that, at that moment, one was alive, if life was to be marked and underscored by a celestial happening. Otherwise McGravitas would liven things up. “Burnished,” said our poet of rooftop terraces, “that damn thing up there is burnished.”—

There was also palaver with Labrosse with whom I have not palavered in a long, long while – there at Uncle Jamal’s new establishment downtown, the blood moon old news. His newly acquired cane propped against a chair, we sat under a large, festive umbrella, the rain pissing down. Labrosse looked dapper and frail and full of rue in his 73rd year, long retired from the world of business and inclined now to the philosophical by way of politics. “Trudeau,” he said, “is being managed from behind the scenes in a big way, as he hasn’t got the wits to generate his own talking points. Mulcair is the more promising of the two. Chrétien, ages ago, proposed to Broadbent that the Libs and the NDPers form a coalition, Harper’s tanks in position, but nothing happened. The Conservatives aren’t really a party but ad hoc bands of malcontents. Difficult to manage, but they’ve managed well enough. Seems to me what the people want on both sides of the border is a genuine independent. Sanders comes closest to filling that bill but he elected to run as a Democrat. It’ll cost him.” And then: “And you?” he asked, “how was that literary reading experience of yours?” “Vile,” I answered. 

Yes, Labrosse believes me prone to exaggeration at times, but he understood from my tone that I was not messing about. And now that he had assessed my tone, he was willing enough to go the extra mile: “Oh? How so? What happened?” “Well,” I said, “it wasn’t the writing so much. It was the shamelessness of writers going on and on about the prizes they’d won, the grants they’d received, the publications in which they’d been showcased, and they couldn’t even wait until they repaired to the bar afterwards for a little pro bono comraderie. It was the fact I’d been sent to the wrong venue in the first place, and I’m standing in this bistro sort of set up, the crowd suspiciously less a literary crowd than a ‘going to get down’ sort of crowd, teen-ish to twenty-ish, all looking as if they had been reared on organic vegetables, and only the best-grade weed and micro-brewed ale would do them. A sylph with a high, insipid voice had just vacated the mic she’d occupied on sufferance. It seemed that, in her person, she was the embodiment of the times and its ethos: get a brand, be a brand. Art, music, literature as life-style, the post-Romantic hullabaloo.

 A trio of gut-heavy blue-collar men at a table off to the side (they had most likely staggered into the watering-hole by mistake, and were either struck dumb or were too far gone to extricate themselves) looked to be vastly relieved at the prospect of her exit, she packing up her CDs. It still hadn’t hit me that I was in the midst of an arts fest. Half hour goes by and I wonder if I’m in the right town. Now and then I get a quizzical look: ‘Hey, bud, the bingo hall is … .’ Another half hour and I’m thinking that, when the literati do come, they’ll come with glittering eyes; and if some will leave with eyes still glittering, others will depart with eyes gone dark, their candles snuffed, the windows of the soul boarded up, such is the power of poetry. But still no literati, no glitter-in-waiting. Another fifteen minutes or so and I’m thinking I could just mosey up and locate myself behind that there microphone and divest myself of my end of the social contract now that the crowd is being pumped by a guy whacking at his guitar, and justify the fee promised me. But then I’m fairly certain that if I so much as whisper the word ‘literature’ I’ll be stoned to death. I’m thinking they can probably smell ‘writer’ on me.” 

Labrosse was amused by what I related. Perhaps it reminded him of business conventions or election night parties. He replenished his mug with more Krombacher and sighed. He was not unfamiliar with spectacles of frisky Calvinists at play, but I thought I would spare him a blow by blow account of how I finally arrived at the proper venue. I got in the door just in time to catch the ground rules for the evening’s fracas: 15 minute time limit on the readings. Civilization. Gourmet coffee. Bizarre liquor laws—

It was the first rule thrown out the window by all parties concerned, that time limit. Perhaps because it left little room for the listing of the prizes won and perks garnered, as spoken of earlier. I mean, who pays attention to literature as literature any longer? An author is one of those electric billboards as in Close Encounters the sci-fi flick, flashing tonal sequences, perhaps hoping to strike a chord with aliens, but in any case, flashing—“Well,” said Labrosse, “I miss our talks, even if you do go on.” “There’s more,” I said. Labrosse looked alarmed. Could he handle it? 

To wit,” I continued, “I’m sitting at the rear of the venue, my bladder screaming. Eternities to wait out before intermission and I can relieve the pressure. All the while I’m recalling that Dr Johnson, eons ago, indicated that only a blockhead writes for glory; any writer with his head screwed on right writes for money. I knew I had none of those virtues. I cringe as a revelation hits. Ah, but of course. One doesn’t write for glory; one doesn’t write for money; one writes for club membership and locker room privileges. Speaking of which, at last, I can trek to the washroom. And before the clock strikes the midnight hour and I turn into a pumpkin, slotted to do my bit, I do my bit; I pocket my cheque and get the hell out of Dodge.” “That’s it?” asked Labrosse daring me now, his old Gallic perversity back in the game, “that’s all? I don’t think so. I know you too well.” 

Alright then,” I said, “there’s still more. Along with the cheque in the envelope I was handed, there was a form to fill out. I was to rate the venue, the promotion of the reading. I was to evaluate the organizational competence of those who coordinated and staged the event, this on a scale of one to five. Why? Because the source of my modest largesse is your taxes and it has to look as if none of it has been poured into a rabbit hole. But the only item I deemed myself competent enough to judge was the venue, which was fine enough; it had exit routes, and should one be on form, the acoustics weren’t bad. The other items? I didn’t know the people, and the fact that I was caught on the wrong end of a venue-switcheroo might only have meant a bad hair day on their part or else they were into guerilla tactics. In other words, I declined to answer. Instead I wrote that, in complying with the ‘marketing survey’, I felt so much less like a writer than an employee of state or a fixer for a pharmaceutical task force. What? You mean all this time and you thought you were, like, a writer? Where did you get off thinking that? I suppose there are years and years of accumulated wisdom, wisdom still maturing, in all the arts councils and art-arms of the government; in all the writerly unions; years and years of know-how and expertise as to what makes for hothouse tomatoes. Does all of it as a consortium serve culture? Or even the illusion of culture? 

Hell, you cannot even Google ‘define state literature’ and get a result that has anything to do with the imperative, at least not on the first page. The distinction between a national literature and a state literature does seem to have become increasingly blurred, or else I’m imagining things. Perhaps there’s no such crittur as a ‘state literature’, one replete with all the requisite platitudes made explicit or left implicit; one that, if not dictating terms to authors, is nonetheless a system in which one seeks to find the appropriate hoop to jump through, entrée to that club to which I alluded. No, no state literature necessarily. True, the arrangement is in tough against right-wing ideologues and reactionary think-tanks and the like who look to garnish the funding for their own schemes and so, the arrangement gets all the more entrenched inasmuch as it is the good people warding off evil in their capacity as the last line of defense against cut-backs and philistinism. But in the end, this sort of literature will prove useless as a genuine witness to what gives out there or will give, beyond the usual gamut of bread and circuses and fashion spectacles and moral ascendancy parades, no matter what politics the writer believes he or she plays at; no matter the condition of the Current PM’s hair. And that’s my humble prediction. Besides, it’s all such a picayune sideshow in comparison to the refugee crisis or anything else that rates a 48 hour news cycle. The more things fall apart, the more hysterical the talking-points. The more name and shame gambits. The more closed-off the mind. I’m thinking it’s time to go back to Square One and mimeograph machines. Which brings me to literature as literature and intelligent commentary on the practice past and present thereof. For that, might I recommend Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence. The man does not play the game, which may be the better part of his value.”

 I could see that Labrosse had had enough. A sheen of surrender was spreading across his eyes. He was not yet in game-shape for a bout of protracted verbalizing, having so recently stepped out of rehab on account of bones he broke, taking a header down some stairs. But he was quite sincere about wanting to do it all again, and soon. He did look rather shaky with his cane as he rose to his feet, but he managed to ambulate with dignity, even aplomb. And I accompanied him to the rue Guy metro, he one of the few men I know who does everything he does in good faith—The blood moon had been a sight, he agreed. He had seen it from his daughter’s house in the country. “And you know what they say,” he said, “something like that shows up in the sky and then all hell breaks loose.” “Yes,” I said, “and I don’t believe it either. Even so, every nerve cell in me tingled with apprehension, as if some symphony orchestra had requisitioned my body and was rehearsing Finlandia all along my synapses. You want a level playing field? Finland has the levellest playing field of them all, no Grand Canyon yawning between the obscene rich and the grotesque poor. I know. Not making any sense here. But I’ve been to the front and I’ve seen that making sense is the least of a writer’s concerns. He or she simply has to cause perturbations in the air, as when a tongue does its thing and sound escapes the lips. The audience, hearing nothing, nonetheless pretends to have been touched by art. It’s the literary experience, is it not? That moon the other night, it was another brave new world welcoming us. ‘Kick back,’ it said, ‘take a load off.’ We did. Pizza, beer, smokes. Love of friends. Huge, huge questions. Like where is all this going? Will we love one another in the after life? Was Severus one of the good emperors or just another monster? Is there blood on Jimmy Carter’s hands? Will the Blue Jays blow it? Is McGravitas good for another shaggy dog sonnet?” “Next time,” said Labrosse, eager to get on his horse and have some quiet time in the country where his daughters attend to his needs, “and we’ll sort it out. I can see I’ve work to do to get back in form. When I’m up to it we’ll do dinner. À la prochaine—”



Norm Sibum writes Ephemeris and loves the music of John Fahey.

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Ephemeris by Elisabeth Gill

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        Encore has been mysteriously inactive for some time, which may be chalked up to general summer vacancy of mind, or it may be chalked up to specific sources chaos and particularly to sudden and acute malaise of the appendix, that fearsome disease braved by small children the world over. And just as yours truly has been under the knife recently, so has this site been undergoing substantive interventions behind the scenes. Very soon, we expect it to emerge with vastly improved internal navigation and dashing new looks. As for Norm, he returns in two weeks, after an August hiatus. We hope he will bring solemnity and earnest, disgruntled self-control with him.

      To facilitate this, I trust you will forgive the use of a phrase that makes Norm peevish: Back at the ranch. Back at the ranch, there have been discussions of reconciliation and urgency over macaroni and cheese. To whit, a line misremembered from John Newlove’s On the Death of a Young Poet, occasioned by the death of a young actor of Newton, Massachusetts, a once-Hamlet, once-director-of-Amadeus, and many times life of the party, friend to the disconsolate, at 26. “And I was ashamed / to be alive / with all my sins still on me”. The guest of yours truly interpolated that he knew the feeling: the frustration that drunk drivers, Assads, shoddy poets, and fluffy-mopped politicos were still beleaguering us, while some of the good ones check out. His brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He explained that he hadn’t pressed charges because the driver, who in addition had killed another person, paralysed another, and given himself brain damage, was already punished by his own deeds.

    There’s that maddening Socratic cum Stoic notion, that vice is its own punishment, and vice cannot harm virtue. I’m not enough of an aesthete to believe it, what with torture regimes and mass incarceration. But there’s another piece to the story, too. The guest here yesterday on his way to Guelph dreamed of his brother on the night of his brother’s death: a goodbye. Whether you’ve dreamed about the dead or not, there is lyric precedent for returns-from-beyond. 

       Francis Child, the famous collector of British-American balladry of the 19th century records several ballads in which ghosts return to the grieving: The Wife of Usher’s Well (Child 79), The Lover’s Ghost (Child 248), and The Unquiet Grave (Child 78).

      All three songs have been rewritten recently as Three Little Babes by Joanna Newsom, Falsehearted Chicken by Sam Amidon, and Cold Blows the Wind by the satire band Ween (all hail the boognish). The first two have also been recorded by the very humble Alasdair Roberts of Glasgow.

     If the soul is like the music played for which the body is the lyre, as Plato suggests in the Phaedo–

“And when someone breaks the lyre, or cuts and rends the strings, then he who takes this view would argue as you do, and on the same analogy, that the harmony survives and has not perished; for you cannot imagine, as we would say, that the lyre without the strings, and the broken strings themselves, remain, and yet that the harmony, which is of heavenly and immortal nature and kindred, has perished–and perished too before the mortal. The harmony, he would say, certainly exists somewhere, and the wood and strings will decay before that decays.”

      –new lives for old songs can attest to returns from the grave. Anyways, from these songs and the scholarship on them we learn three important things: first, that the tree that grows by the gates of Paradise, readers, is a birch; second, that its bark when worn as a hat protects the dead from the corruption of the living world, and finally, that the proper time to grieve is a year and a day, no more.

     We have been reading about reconciliation, the classic variety, in Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea by one David Konstan, scholar of emotions in the Greek and Roman world. It is practical reading for those who have harmed others, and those who have been harmed by others. In the face of death (in the guise of limited timeframes) reconciliation where possible possesses a certain urgency: reconciliation with loss, with the corruption of the living world, and reconciliation with those who continue to matter, through ties of blood or affection. I’ve gleaned just two things from Konstan thus far, over macaroni and cheese: “God’s forgiveness, it will emerge, has special characteristics, such as the ability to cancel sin entirely […]”, implying that lowly human forgiveness never cancels sin, and that what is sometimes translated as forgiveness in ancient texts “more likely involved anger appeasement and reconciliation of differences”. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

     Elsewhere, one Toronto poet wonders why Jesus’ martyrdom should have any effect on the sins of humanity whatsoever. If a person can’t atone in this world, be forgiven on general principles, or pay reparations in one form or another, how does a single death balance the books for so much bad behavior? The mysteries of the church are ever mysterious to me. Or perhaps, over and against lists that get checked twice, three strike systems, or St. Peter’s ledger, etc., persons are more than the sum of their actions. The Shiva at the late actor’s house seemed to suggest this–the way his mother, father, and brother welcomed strangers into their house, packed with people, food, and photos–

     And perhaps we can turn our attention to those seeking another kind of second life: the refugees and migrants flooding into Europe–

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

     Received: The Hotel Oneira, Poems, August Kleinzahler, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux and Music I - LXXIV, August Kleinzahler, Pressed Wafer. The latter book is a collection of short essays on music and music’s personalities, and it covers everything from bluesmen to classical composers and all the jazz in-between. What I have read of it so far charms. The book of poems I have yet to get to, just that the book’s blurb classifies the poet as a free verser; and though I accept that there is perhaps an Old School definition of vers libre, the words, to my mind, only serve to dignify a lot of verbal sludge and sloppy practice and so, the designation rankles. In any case, Mr. Kleinzahler, at first blush, has an ear and a feel for phrasing that belie the notion of ‘free verse’. Another blurb states that the man is perhaps America’s best poet, and it may well be true. Idle thought: but I wonder how often these sorts of statements backfire and turn off more potential readers than they attract—

     Received: Leadbelly, No Stranger to the Blues, Folkways Music Publishers. Received because fished out of a moldering cardboard box in a secondhand bookstore. A collection of combined scores and tablatures. Ancient text. Well, I have always wanted to play Leadbelly on the 12 string ever since I heard Gene Jaleski perform ‘Fannin Street’ and ‘Dekalb Blues’ and ‘Easy Rider’ and other Leadbelly classics, Leadbelly-style back in the 60s; and I have only ever been able to make pale imitations of the same; and now, at least, I have got some idea as to how the man went about it. As for Jaleski, he was a Yalie who got sick one day with some ailment or other and then, while convalescing and bored, ‘picked up’ Leadbelly from listening to old ‘78s.

      He walked away from his law degree (or whatever it was he had signed up for) by way of his Porsche and never looked back until the mid 70s when the window on performing such music in coffeehouses across the U.S. and Canada closed, and we got, oh, I don’t know, the industry.—

     Otherwise, the Moesian, before he contrived to venture off the reservation, Belgrade-bound, instructed me in the politics of how it is we maintain in a ‘blame culture’, and how it is the only virtue remaining to us is the virtue of not getting caught. I have to say I have my own skepticism with respect to the virtues, but to live in a world where there is not even the barest trace of such an inclination in any genuine sense apart from camouflage and posturing – it seems like we are cutting things close to the bone. We were sitting at a sidewalk table outside a hotel on Sherbrooke St, tourist buses idling all around us; and though it was likely just a coincidence, it did seem (as the hour was the beginning of the evening commute) that so many office workers, boys and girls, had that look, that look of there’s gotta be something more to life than this, and I have this terrible feeling there isn’t.

   The Moesian went on to explain that a once internalized sense of guilt (Christian sensibility was what he meant) was now worn on one’s sleeve as a kind of fetish item. Yes, the sun, the beer, the company of a friend. Life was good. And all I needed to do was sit there and listen to a younger man disgusted by much of what he sees. Were his reasons any different than mine when it came to truth, beauty, justice and a whole new ballgame vis-à-vis the hypocrisies? The more things change the more they stay the same, to wit: the walking wounded. And a society mired in its fantasies of right living. And moral ascendancy, which is the only game in town, as ever. Ah now, a bus load of party animals about to collect their prizes. And they are about to unload on my friend and me; and we do not begrudge anyone their pleasures, just that bread and circuses, at times, do seem a poor trade-off for one’s soul: “F—k a bunch of class analysis. You’re blocking my view of the sun and we haven’t even unpacked.” 

     I had been wondering how far Trump would get in his quest for the presidential nomination, and of this moment, it would seem he has exceeded the expectations of most pundits. Clever man. He has sapped every Republican fortress of a talking point and blown it all to someone’s Kingdom Come. Hillary’s? I’m a billionaire. The game’s rigged. I know. I’m a billionaire and I help do the rigging. We’re all corrupt. Just saying.

      I watched the Canadian debate too. Different universe. But not one entirely devoid of farce. There was Trudeau with the air of a man desperate to find himself a date. There was May with the air of a woman who can multi-task and still cannot quite get past the fact that men cannot and besides, Current PM has a tendency to fudge the numbers, the rotter. There was Mulcair who oddly enough reminded me of W.C. Fields chatting up his little chickadee, who had magisterial control of the issues and could not be knocked off his spats, but who, nonetheless, was something of a card sharp. And there was Current PM himself, and he seemed to be enjoying himself too much at my expense (yes, I was taking it personally), his hair seemingly frozen in time. It just so happened that this spectacle of the ministerial hair coincided with my reading of Ann Wroe’s Pilate, an extended meditation on what sort of man Pontius Pilate may have been, you know, the guy who interviewed Jesus Christ. And one plausible profile of the fellow is that he was a buffoon, but a buffoon who had at his disposal the lethal power of the Roman state. There it was, one of the principle tensions that inform human history: the push me pull you tug of war between an equivocator and an entity staking his all on an absolute truth however ephemeral. What has this to do with a coiffed PM? Not much perhaps, but where there is smoke there is likely to be some buffoonery afoot—

     Morning. Nikas. Virgin Radio. The usual pop platitudes. We have a deepening feeling here of things coming to a head, the specifics of which shall be left deliberately vague, lest we court the charge of oracularizing, a literary game to be avoided like the plague. For instance, could be Trump’s brand of demagoguery and what makes it effective is a harbinger of something or other to come or already arrived, and the word that would identify the malaise would be one of the f-words, one of the much over-used and inaccurately applied f-words. But who would have thought, eh? Still, Mr Trump may yet shoot himself in his own toes and anything I have had to say here may then be beside the point.

 So mathematics, which measures when we do not want to measure, defines and circumscribes when we do not want to set limits (even if these are vast, even if the reality is beyond our imagination), analyzes when we do not want analysis or an intimate, exact knowledge of something we find pleasurable (even when this knowledge does not reveal any defects but rather enables us to see that the object is more perfect than we had supposed, as happens in the scrutiny of works of genius, when discovering all their virtues makes them disappear), mathematics, I say, must necessarily be the opposite of pleasure—

     Ah, Signor Leopardi. As ever. Throws a spanner in the works. And along with mathematics, I am wondering if reviewese might be considered another of pleasure’s opposites—


Contributor Norm Sibum has not washed his baseball cap since the last Clinton presidency. His novel is The Traymore Rooms.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

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     Morning. Nikas. And soon Alexandra the waitress is off to Greece. She will be off as soon as she pops the toast and brings Irish Harpy her coffee creamer. The referendum, in Alexandra’s mind, has been pointless, seeing as the ‘guy’ is now signing everything, apparently buckling under to EU demands et cetera. By ‘guy’, Alexandra means Tsipras the Greek PM. And I say, “Yes, but at least the Greeks are saying they’re not Germans. Who wants a world where everyone is German? The horror.”

     And well, she gets it, gets it that it is one thing if a country consists of the picturesque, including its people, but that those people should also constitute the Protestant work ethic gone mad? And the look she gives me is the one that states: “He’s a dear lad, but nonetheless, an imbecile, móros, to be taken as an inconvenient fact of nature.” She would not mind being filthy rich, my other-worldly tendencies beside the point, and I suppose they truly are.

     Otherwise, I hear there is to be a re-make of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Is not the world a horror that just cannot stop giving? Even if the flick is to be any good, how can the fountain scene, for instance, come off as anything but a warmed-over bit of retro, of creepy-crawly fetishism? Even if the scene has everything going for it as per all the production values, it will lack utterly the – what? – the frisson, the kick, the rush, the sheer joy of its inception, the spirit of the time it which it came to be—Leopardi:

[Philosophers] believe that man will be happy when he lives entirely in accordance with pure reason. And then he will kill himself by his own hand—

     And you are free to ask what any of this has to do with above. Just that I understand that Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence is ranting on and on about bad, very bad poetry, and I am thinking: “Better him than me is all I can say.”


Norm Sibum writes Ephemeris. His most recent novel is The Traymore Rooms. He seems to be enjoying the summer.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

     Received: Heaven and Earth, An Anthology of Myth Poetry, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015. It is a rather slim book for a subject as grand as the mythopoeic, but it contains good poems; and I appreciate the re-introduction to the verses of Jay Macpherson, one of the first Canadian poets I read when I came to these parts a long time ago. She seems startlingly sentient in contrast to – enough. 

     Received: one Greek statue, bronze. Of a veiled, dancing figure. 

Third to second century B.C. Ravishing. Absolutely. No, we do not have it in our actual possession—

     Received: bubašvabe. Which it is a word, Serb; which it is a construction meant to be read as ‘cockroach’, one of German mien, and intended to allude to a certain wartime occupation while bestowing opprobrium on the occupiers, as it were. It is an indication, too, of the fact that not all linguistic necessity, not all trash talk, is entirely the brainchild of the theoretical—

     Morning. Nikas. Alexandra is pounding on the counter where she makes the toast. The Greek debt crisis? The news, this morning, of the Charleston shooting?* Some 60 million displaced people wandering about this world? Or is she just sick and tired of waitressing? Now this stands to reason. Yes, sick and tired of Irish Harpy and retinue. Sick of me her most loyal customer. Of the heavy-haunched guy from the apartment above who has much commentary to broach on satellite TV sports patter though he cannot do the kalamatiano. Then again Eddie the cook cracks a joke. And Alexandra, ah, she laughs. Now we have a brand new day on hand, even if our waitress has no desire to cancel history and start from scratch with ideological purity, with Snow White’s serenity, all the dwarves in permanent quarantine. But did Wittgenstein really mean what he said when he said there is no private meaning, just jungle drums and a hot line to the prez in the event of a misunderstanding? Well, the PM has been catting about of late, the world stage his back alley, and if he is Puss in Boots the trickster, perhaps he has a view of Wittgenstein more professional than mine. Perhaps, because of the better polling data at his disposal, his inside track to what really boots it is more inside than my inside track—

     I have recently cured myself of an unaccountable urge to revisit The New American Poetics, which was a 60s anthology primarily devoted to the so-called Black Mountain school of poetry, some of which I probably still have affection for, most of which I bet I would now find unreadable. And then along came Po-Mo, and all was superseded or forgotten. Sent packing to some gulag where all the superannuated gene pools of literature are sent to grow vegetable gardens and count the waves coming in off the sea. They will have been rendered beside the point, as it is now: beside the point. As there is no point. Never has been, apparently. The greatest literary shell game to have ever come down the turnpike – Po-Mo and the Chantays. 

     And further discussion at the Moesian’s of what makes for dated prose yielded no more insight than it did two weeks prior at the Benelux amidst girls with issues and date rapists in cargo pants. But the cure of which I was speaking consisted of me recalling that I once quit the Black Mountain habit cold turkey, and why go through all that again? Why continue to agonize as to whether the anti-imperial pitch was truly anti-imperial or a mirage situated in the lysergically-rinsed imaginations of free-versers? Still, their heavy-lifters, their theorists, and with gusto, ragged on poets like E.A. Robinson from a generation or two previous who just happened to see Moloch beginning to round into shape. Such poets were barred from the Poetry Hall of Fame as, in the Black Mountain scheme of things, they had had recourse to steroids and reactionary rhyme—

     And then, one evening, we searched for Sugar Man, and found him in what few crumbs of humble pie are left to us, were we to speak of – what? the Greek debt crisis? So then, was Sixto Rodriguez, folk musician, possible rival to Dylan, at last vindicated when South Africans flew him over from Detroit and gave him carte blanche, provided him with a series of sold-out concerts, as this bard was, in their minds, a force to bring against apartheid and prudery? Or was he a slut at bottom for the buzz, no matter its provenance? Or was he halfway to being a holy man in the sense that his feet were firmly on the ground and he was good-humoured and good-natured, with or without a sound-system, with or without a cause, with or without a publicity agent? 

Illusions, however much they may be weakened or exposed by reason, nevertheless still exist in the world and play the greatest role in our lives….

And then: 

Man can only live by religion or by illusions. This is a clear and incontestable fact. If you drastically  curtail his religion or his illusions, anyone, even a child at the first stage of reasoning (since children  live mostly only off their illusions), would almost definitely kill himself, and our species would of inborn and material necessity be doomed at birth….

And then: 

It is no more possible for man to live completely cut off from nature, which we are constantly drawing farther away from, than it is for a tree cut off at the root to bear flowers and fruit—

     From Zibaldone, Giacomo Leopardi. And I am afraid the man, for all I admire his capacity for thought, who may have had the best of the argument in his time, is dead wrong at this juncture. We do live without illusions (or else we have gone the illusions one better with our fondness for fantasy and techno-know); we do live separate from nature or in an altered, re-tooled nature; we value religion not much more than we value poetry, which ain’t all that much, and there does not seem to be any piper to pay for this state of affairs, except a bevy of corporatist wizards by whose grace we are permitted to consume goods and think up more illustrious ways of saying the author of any given book is only a cultural construct. 

     Well then, gas ovens and a bonfire for all those vanities seem to be in order: it amounts to the same sort of dismissal. And who would have figured that spiritual suicide could generate so much profit (for some, to be sure), so much warm and fuzzy collegiality among drinkers of Bud, and get so many pretenders their interviews? Religion aside (the health or unwholesomeness of the thing), what illusion is more pernicious to logic than to believe that your world is inherently stable and always amenable to rationality? Indeed, you are privileged. Your life is sweet. Certainly, your life could be a lot worse. Tomorrow, who knows? And noon, and Alexandra still pounds on that counter, and men want soup and women their due. 

Note: I have been alerted to the existence of a blogsite out of Houston in which literature is daily discussed in a more intelligent and tidy fashion than is the case here. Those interested in this phenomenon can, as it were, google Patrick Kulp and Anecdotal Evidence. Recent commentary seems to centre on Zbigniew Herbert, Eric Ormsby, Dr. Johnson, and even London Lunar is reportedly due for treatment.

* Ed: This post dates to June 17th.




Contributor Norm Sibum writes the column Ephemeris. He has been writing and publishing poetry for over thirty years. Born in Oberammergau in 1947, he grew up in Germany, Alaska, Utah, and Washington before moving to Vancouver in 1968. He has published several volumes of poetry in Canada and England. A Canadian citizen, Sibum currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Mary Harman, Clay Fact
Mary Harman Clay face.

      How define sensibility? Does a man who possesses a home library have the thing? Can a liquor cabinet well-stocked with exotic tinctures epitomize the quality? Is there sensibility in a speaker of eight languages? The Vancouverite who flies to London every weekend for the operas and Harrods? Someone who hangs about Cape Breton? The Marquis de Sade? Hannibal Lector? Wes Craven? A rapper with disdain in his nostrils? Perhaps sensibility is overrated, but then so is out and out vulgarity as per something like Hard Core Pawn or movies whose merits can only be arrived at by way of rating each their ‘gross-out’ factor, necessitating a mathematical equation of some sort.

      A woman quaintly appellated as Chiara Ambrosio recently informed London Lunar that her generation exists in a state of arrested simile, a depiction of things that certainly arrested me once I heard of it. It is as if the word this is forever unable to locate its that-ness in language or in life, and it would seem to depict more than one generation of hapless true believers and infidels. The Oxford Dictionary has it that sensibility is ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotions or aesthetic influences’. Also: ‘a delicate sensitivity that makes one liable to be offended or shocked’. Well, I have found myself of late expatiating inwardly on the kind of poet who has sensibility but no ear, and, conversely, on the kind of poet who has ‘ear’ but is devoid of thorough-going responses to any aesthetic influence; and it was then pointed out to me (after I made the mistake of giving voice to these burgeoning thoughts) that I was in the initial stages of formulating a screed on poetics. Oh, the horror! Alarm. Cold sweat. Poetics. One might be better off viewing chainsaw massacres.

      So, to put all that out of my head, I took myself to a stretch of Ste Catherine’s that has a rather ‘missed-out-on-the-boom times’ air about it, and amongst the low-enders milling about, I had myself a pint on a badly-appointed terrasse and watched the Fellini-esque in the persons of various ‘low-enders’ going by, as well as other enders bound, no doubt, for grander prospects. I was in a scene from Les Enfants du Paradis. (Because street life is street life, no matter the age, race and class divides, the high rollers and their fashion wear.) Or I was in a scene of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, and there were all manner of Fagins around (wearing oversized baseball caps). Or I could have summoned up Juvenalian satire or Petronius’s Satyricon, but you must be getting the point by now. And if not, you can always avail yourself of urban scrawl.

      And one did overhear outside the CockandBull (now in the hands of a low-rent mogul) the immortal words: “I want to f—k anything that has legs.” Perhaps one would not have heard this sort of conversational icebreaker in the Stone Age, but the odds are good that one would have heard it in a Roman legion camp or at the entrance to a Roman brothel, and the source of these words – a premier stud of the day with baseball cap down around his ears – he simply had no idea that he was that rich in antecedents going back, going back as far as before the Rolling Stones, that chamber group of period electric instruments

      And perhaps in all the seeming chaos confronting one on the news every day, the world looks for its lost symmetry. Failing that, it could do with a cozy stand-off between contending forces. The world will always want its fair breeze, its hammock, its good book. Wrong epoch however. Fantasy commandeers the era, the public thorough-fares of the mind, and besides, Wittgenstein said that there is no private meaning as such, and the soul is a just a word among others. But perhaps he did not really mean to be taken as literally as all that. Speaking of which, it has been a while since I raided Leopardi’s cupboard for a heads-up. From Leopardi’s Zibaldone then: 

It is a mistake to talk about a desire being satisfied. Desires are not satisfied when we have reached their goal, but extinguished, that is, they are lost or abandoned in the certain knowledge that they can never be satisfied. And all that is gained from reaching the desired goal is to know this wholly.

 Did he have sex on his brain. Cuisine? But how did I get from world-symmetry and whatever meaning means, to the dilemma of gratifying oneself without passing through Toronto?

      History (and an answer perhaps to the above question) was on tap last night in the persons of Metcalf, Smith and Blaise at The Word bookshop. These men are writers of fiction and members of the original Montreal Storyteller group. One might also describe them as subjects of a new publishing venture on the part of Biblioasis under the rubric of Reset Books, re-issuings of what are now considered canonical works. Metcalf, dapper in a silvery sort of way, sparked off the festivities with an invocation of the Holy Ghost. It is to say he invoked Hugh Hood as having been the presiding genius of the cabal, Mr. Hood now deceased. I do not mean to make light of this invocation: Metcalf’s tone was intense; it was locked in a no-nonsense mode; it was deeply felt. We are talking lifelong dedication to literature on a number of fronts; one does not quibble with that. Moreover, and just after he accorded to Biblioasis high praise for its work as a publishing house (and it is an excellent house, and is set to become the best this country has ever seen), he then gave out with a resounding dig at poets.

      So then piss, vinegar and a few drops of carbolic acid his syntax, his timbre, his outlook, he sported with the miserable hounds that call themselves poets. He razzed them with intent to maim, injure and otherwise judiciously incommode. All in the name of good literary fun. It was his contention that poets back in the day were hogging all the action and that the writing of short stories was the manlier thing to do. Besides that, short-story writers squeeze more pleasure out of life as they are so much less liable to endless navel-gazing and other pre-occupations of self-infatuation. The short story writers, back in the glory days, were at least sentient enough to prefer boozing and wenching to a discussion of Rilke’s angels and how many of them could congregate on the head of a pin, and in translation too. The spirit of Metcalf’s remarks was well-enough received, just that I cannot quite see it in myself to utterly dismiss all poets as being effete and needlessly effusive and somehow unwholesome, though God knows I have tried. There was then the ‘reading’ portion of the reading. Each man gave of himself without too much fussing about.

      There was no 1) I am now going to read from my laptop, or 2) from my handheld device, and I’m going to kick ass.  There were passages concerned with self-discovery in an exotic setting. There was coming of age in a museum. There was picking the brain of a long-dead South American liberator not Che. It was the statue of a romantic who took up arms,  who seemed to have lived even better than writers of short stories with respect to truth, beauty, justice and sex, the modern world having corrupted one’s best (or worst) impulses and having ruined one’s spawn.

      At the bar afterwards, attendees of the event gathered to pass commentary on political and aesthetic matters. They had it in mind to drink beer. They had it in mind to ask: would Hillary sweep the field before her in her frog march to the White House? (What with all the Republicans in the hunt, it is beginning to look like a mad dash to the sea on the part of a slew of lemmings.) What would she gut by way of deregulation? Could rivals to her left force her hand and she become politically ambidextrous? Just how deep is she in the pockets of the corporate nexus? Would she allow the seal of good housekeeping to be affixed to drone warfare? As for the PM’s glass jaw, is it beveled or does it consist of fumed silica? At some point, the question arose: how does dated prose get to be dated prose? Is it inevitable that all written work will eventually come off as ‘dated’? The Moesian suggested that it was perhaps a consequence of referencing pop culture. American Psycho also dates itself, he pointed out, on account of its enthralled allusions to the music of the 80s. But might not the intensity of the enthrallment transcend the time in which it occurred? When Proust goes on about his spending all the time he could at some Parisian theatre in his youth, one does not necessarily respond to the prose by saying, “Ah, the 1890s or thereabouts, so inimitable, so identifiable. Because, man, Debussy’s music—oh, awesome—” (Or am I going to have to put it to the test and return to those pages that I read some 40 years ago such as might have ruined me in the eyes of my generation of dead-eye Dick novelists?) Now is there anything dated about Achilles’ shield in Homer’s epic? More APA. (American pale ale to you.) A ghost story or two—There followed a discussion of ISIS as seen through the prism of Cavafy’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’.

     This was followed by a discussion of how Citigroup got to be Citigroup, which was followed by yet more wondering as to why Pound and Yeats were enamoured of fascists, and whether the ‘old left’, the absence of which I on occasion lament, was what had appalled them, just as what constitutes the new left, if there be such a beast, is what generally appalls me, especially when come across via the digital venue of Raw Story and the like, which is all tabloid righteousness and Judge Judy in tank-top garb, and aren’t we the real deal, having the copyright on right behaviour?

      What then are we to make of Talleyrand’s ‘too much sensibility creates unhappiness and too much insensibility creates crime’? Had he art in mind, justice, or the exercise of arbitrary power? Someone once said to me, now that we are back on the subject of literature and what a slippery thing it is when the game is on for the attempt to establish what is good, bad, ugly and indifferent about its products: “Canadian literature? Give it 600 more years, and then we’ll talk.” Even so, not much more than an eye-blink separates Pushkin from Ahkmatova, for instance, and perhaps time has nothing to do with it. Which returns us to the question of sensibility, and if not sensibility, then the capacity for ignoring time and simply getting on with whatever one has to get on with and let the dust settle where it may.




Contributor Norm Sibum has been writing and publishing poetry for over thirty years. Born in Oberammergau in 1947, he grew up in Germany, Alaska, Utah, and Washington before moving to Vancouver in 1968. He has published several volumes of poetry in Canada and England. A Canadian citizen, Sibum currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

The Pulpit Rock
Mary Harman. Shelf Life. 1998. Hologram.

It has long been a sore point with London Lunar—the production values of so much recent theatre, opera too. Must Richard III always appear in Fascist regalia, Othello perhaps in a business suit, à la Don Draper? At what point are cultural relevance and realism bores? May Day, and not as a distress signal, was rung in at the abode of Golden Girl and the Shillong Kid. It was not so much that the workers of the world were honoured but that a question was raised: why is Yeats the poet a pin-up for left-of-centres when he so admired Mussolini? Or perhaps this question was not raised at all, omitted from the list of party favours. What did come up was a discussion regarding free speech, in light of all the Charlie Hebdo controversies. Now should free speech that degenerates into mere self-expression, into jokes for the sake of jokes, into pretexts for showing off one’s cleverness, still deserve protection under the law? I took the line that free speech is an absolute, but that if more was spoken and written on the order, for instance, of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, so much trash that pretends to eloquence and an enlightened humanity might fall away on the strength of its weightlessness, not to mention its witless bravado. Well, a man can hope, can he not? And then again, much of what Swift wrote only brought him grief. And his left eye swelled up to the size of an egg and he might have gone insane toward the end of his life. Writerly virtue does not necessarily maintain happiness, let alone bring it, even as those born cum laude, impervious to satire, have dining privileges on campus and are not haunted—Received: Don McGrath’s translation of Robert Melançon’s Montreal Before Spring, Biblioasis. We vouch for it here, and anyone who thinks otherwise can answer to me—A challenge has, in fact, been put to this quarter: how about taking on the American penchant for technologically-induced optimism? “Or would that be too much like shooting fish in a barrel?” asked the woman who roguishly endeavoured to suck me into another sort of barrel from which I was never again to emerge. There is this from DH Lawrence, in a piece of travel-noodling entitled The Lemon Gardens

Whatever we do, it is within the greater will towards self-reduction and a perfect society, analysis on the one hand, and mechanical construction on the other. This will dominates us as a whole, and until the whole breaks down, the will must persist. So that now, continuing in the old, splendid will for a perfect selfless humanity, we have become inhuman and unable to help ourselves, we are but attributes of the great mechanised society we have created on our way to perfection. And this great mechanised society, being selfless, is pitiless. It works on mechanically and destroys us, it is our master and our God—

Well, were we to substitute digital for mechanized, would we have a ballgame, and the words above from the 20s of the last century still apply? I meant to quote the concluding paragraph from the same essay, if for no other reason than it truly wades into doom, and with a bio-hazard outfit too, but enough is enough. “The world is what it is,” shrugs Eddie the cook in Nikas, he in hip-waders. Perhaps he has read both Heraclitus and Donald Rumsfeld, the latter man a Pre-Socratic for stuff happensI have just been informed that the NDP has surmounted Mr. Trudeau in a poll. He deserves to be surmounted, I think, and not by the other guys micromanaged by Captain Hook. I am also told that Geoffrey Hill had it in somewhat for Phillip Larkin in his last Oxford lecture in addition to the words that follow, his parting shot to the literary world, or so one imagines: “Go home. We want expressiveness, not self-expression.” What, no more riotous revelry? Performance shenanigans? Spiritually affordable dreadlocks? And so forth and so on. Perhaps Mr Hill’s injunction is a welcome one, however thin the line between self-expression and something approximating artistry. Or on an even less kind note, the Moesian at his abode, spelled out for me the difference between the service a golden dildo provides us as opposed to that of a rusty tin can; that is to say, we in the west are tucked in at nights by our corporate sponsors, while in the east, a whole other compact obtains, generally speaking. Sleepless in Mosul. We sat there on the balcony, he and I, near hypnotized by the twilight and the stillness of the air, a pleasantly humid evening in May, the foliage lush, the cats fat and sassy who patrolled the fence-tops and rooftops, Montreal intimate and yet, so discreet, and the wine was good.



Contributor Norm Sibum has been writing and publishing poetry for over thirty years. Born in Oberammergau in 1947, he grew up in Germany, Alaska, Utah, and Washington before moving to Vancouver in 1968. He has published several volumes of poetry in Canada and England. A Canadian citizen, Sibum currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Mary Harman, The Shadows of Beauty Lengthen (After Canaletto). 12″ x 16″. Oil on canvas.

A chill that has nothing to do with human antics, as when we get another law smacking of Draconia, has sneaked back into the air. A rum day out there of pouring rain and bluster a week or so shy of May. Lunch hour. Nikas. Alexandra the waitress asks me how I am doing, and I have to say I am a little touched by her solicitation. Her question is sincerely put, and it is as if we are great friends now, however much relations between us once were tense, given her fondness for bad radio and high decibels in the restaurant. We are at least friendly to one another if not bosom pals, and I am always happy to see her in a good mood. Over time I have learned when to crack a joke and when to simply leave her be, should her mood turn sour or downright black, as does happen on occasion in her very Greek soul. But yes, I have been away from the fence a while. Even so, I do recall London Lunar suggesting to me, before I took my sabbatical, so to speak, that the recent re-burial of Richard III constitutes a triumph of a kind for British eccentrics. These breathing oddments are a sub-species of humanity he had thought extinct due to the encroachments of an economic order as would bulldoze over everything quaintly human, the many BBC sitcoms getting beamed across our continent notwithstanding. I also recall how the Moesian, his exasperation falling just short of a homicidal impulse, deemed it the last straw; or that some mention he read somewhere to do with the notion that the ‘artist’ is only a cultural construct had taken him to the edge of his ability to reason in good faith. The assertion seems a severe swing of the pendulum away from the notion of artist as ‘hero’, this scam reinforced by any number of art conferences and festivals. The notion is also dramatized in any number of movies as per Charlton Heston having at the Sistine Chapel with blood, sweat and tears; is attested to in a 2005 flick I watched by chance the other night featuring Harvey Keitel. Mr Keitel portrayed a hard-nosed veteran writer having to put up with the attentions of a naïve youngster with aspirations to authorship; and Keitel would now and then mouth what I would consider fairly common sense thoughts about the act of writing, just that all too often in the course of the flick there were nauseating immersions into rank sentimentality when it came to how writers think or ought to think in the practice of their craft and in regards to the beauty of the world. And so forth and so on. Was the famed actor hard up for a pay cheque? Was there a ponce in his Pulp Fiction soul? But I have to say, as obnoxious to the spirit as the flick was in the end, it was much less so than the aforementioned notion of the artist as a deconstructed bit of excremental matter, product of an art-world alimentary tract. It seems de rigueur and even essential to catch out tyrants and bullies and anything smacking of fascist ilk in their disregard for human dignity, and yet, when critics exhibit pretty much the same disregard for the same, there is a whole lot of crying foul whenever anyone like the Moesian objects to the daily grind of an extortion racket. Indeed, he said that there was now no one and nothing to take seriously any longer in the literary realm. No more poetry readings for him. Sometimes I think the man really has a point, and I am tempted to insinuate that the venues in which I have come across the least levels of the dignity-item under discussion are, in fact—Then again, I am supposed to be taking it easy—So I was in the hospital for three weeks, stuck in a medical limbo on account of the Easter holiday, all the doctors gone away to cavort. While in hospital, I managed to reread once again the Annals of Tacitus, in addition to his Histories, as well as some Livy and Unamuno. 

Tacitus

Ah, The Tragic Sense of Life. All this while the fellow next to me was on his third major surgery. Some light reading for me, and for him, a lot of energy to expend as would keep a brave face on his condition. Early on, as I proceeded at a glacier’s pace from my initial foray into Emergency to the first nursing station where I was to have blood drawn, the male nurse attending to the matter saw the Tacitus and said, with an accent I could not identify: “Tacitus. Yes, I know him.” He proceeded to add to my look of disbelief by complimenting my veins and sticking a needle in one of them and further remarking: “The more laws a country has, the more corrupt it is.” Well, it certainly sounded Tacitean, what he said, and I gave him the benefit of my doubt, as relieved as I was that someone was at last seeing to me, and the needle was now, as it were, withdrawn. In the ensuing days, the combination of Tacitus and queries as to my bowel movements struck me as the true nexus of our civilization, as if Asclepius was running about the ward in a smock, brandishing a stethoscope, and playing to a peanut gallery of worshipful interns. I had also read Henry IV, Part 2, and in the introduction to the play there was embedded a perfect précis—unintended perhaps—as it was meant for Shakespeare’s day, but in any case, a shorthand critique of our times, bits of which are as follow:

Politics is no longer a matter of high ideals and high tempers, but an ignoble and repetitive motion of declining momentum. Or this:
Accompanying this sense of pervasive civil disease is an epidemic sense of nepotism in power relations. Or this:
Accompanying this need for an unyielding justice is a desire for change, some way to shrug off the homogenizing cycles of corruption and corrosion that have come to dominate events like a kind of political quicksand.

And more. But no need to pile on. Then, on a slightly different tack: Unamuno, early 20th century.

Everything in me that conspires to break the unity and continuity of my life conspires to destroy me and consequently destroy itself. And: Yes, yes, I see it all!—an enormous social activity, a mighty civilization, a profuseness of science, of art, of industry, of morality, and afterwards, when we have filled the world with industrial marvels, with great factories, with roads, museums, and libraries, we shall fall exhausted at the foot of it all, and it will subsist—for whom? Was man made for science or was science made for man?

What? You mean the question has been disqualified and consequently stricken from future Q&A sessions? Well, the heart and mind are contradictions, and as there are people in this world who only think with their brains, the next observation seems to me quite apt:

A terrible thing is intelligence. It tends to death as memory tends to stability. The living, the absolutely unstable, the absolutely individual, is, strictly, unintelligible. Logic tends to reduce everything to identities and genera, to each representation having no more than one single and self-same content in whatever place, time, or relation it may occur to us. And there is nothing that remains the same for two successive moments of its existence.

And so forth and so on. Although I could riposte that there are certain people who never seem to change, and whose commentary I can predict to a word each time I am subject to their disquisitions—And then there was a book, just out, that I read: Dismantling Canada. Stephen Harper’s New Conservative Agenda. Brooke Jeffrey, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Although my attentions have largely been focused on American politics for reasons for which I will not apologize, and even if I have known that things have been deteriorating here for quite some time, I admit I had no idea that things were this bad, as the book spells out in quite readable, if depressing detail. Lastly, I picked up at random DH Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia

Travel writing that I read many years ago. Since then, Lawrence has gone up and down in my estimation like the prow of a ship in heavy seas. At the moment, I view him as prophetic.

The spirit of the place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed. In the end, the strange, sinister spirit of the place, so diverse and adverse in differing places, will smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens, and all that we think the real thing will go off with a pop, and we shall be left staring.

And yet I have to say I have my doubts with respect to the gist of Lawrence’s words immediately above. We can replace the word mechanical with the word digital. We can speak of the monetization of all human gestures. And everything is shiny and Shanghai and planned and plotted to the nth degree, this despite the mood swings in the persons of the wonderful nurses I met in D Pavilion who do manage some human feeling, for all that they are stressed to the max and caught up in a broken system in which the sick are so many poked-about lumps of meat, subject to hospital politics and the overweening egos of doctors—Unless, of course, you have the money and you can buy yourself some TLC and a perpetually smiling staff, everything hunky-dory, under control. No worries—

Ephemeris by Jaime Bastien

I have come across some articles on the mental derangement of a paleontologist. The man, one Dr. Chonosuke Okamura, spent much of his life gazing at shards of ancient mountains through a microscope to find traces of the planet’s earliest remains of life. Late in his career, he discovered an incredibly minute human being, holding what must be an infant, barely outlined in the chaos of markings on the stone surface. Further stones revealed further species: dogs the size of dust specks, a giraffe whose neck couldn’t stretch over an acorn, a pod of whales that could live in a teardrop. The scientist carefully photographed, outlined and named each find; he constructed elaborate charts and diagrams. Having discovered our earliest roots (we were miniature versions of ourselves) and, I am assuming, extrapolating our future (expansion to gargantuan dimensions), he fought and failed to get his studies recognized.

The story would not be so unbelievable if Okamura had not spent a good part of his life with his eye on the microscope finding the algae remains that are truly the only remains of life that are left on those stones. He’s like a meteorologist gathering data about clouds, only to announce that, in the end, he discovered a herd of sheep in the sky. Or an electrician who can’t bear to plug it in—as a face had appeared in the outlet. When you remark to someone that you see the form of a castle in the melting snowbank and they reply that they see it too, down to the fibres in the waving flags atop its walls and the pimples of the guards peeking over the bastions, they are either playing the joking pataphysicist or have begun to stretch your momentary misimpression into their long madness.

Unless confined to poetic conceits or illusionary paintings pareidolia is acceptable in short, dying flashes. Da Vinci recommended self-inducing this state to see great paintings in blotches on the walls.

In the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder, the German Romantic-philosopher, wrote against a certain form of mistaken scrutiny in his essay On The Origin of Language. When commenting on the foolishness of extrapolating from the meaning of a word by examining the shape of its letters, instead of referring to its function in a word or sentence, he uses the image of a tear under a microscope: “The tear which moistens this lusterless and extinguished, this solace-starved eye—how moving it is not in the total picture of a face of sorrow. Taken by itself it is merely a drop of cold water. Place it under a microscope—I do not care what I see there.”

image

But here today we have a photographer, Rose-Lynn Fisher, artist of the microscope, printing a book of such images: Topography of Tears. She reveals the world Herder was so apathetic about. The pictures resemble, to me, aerial images of rural waterways, cut up with highways, dead-end roads and the chaotic waterways characterizing the remains of glaciers. Fisher sees in each image an “ephemeral atlas.”

I’m inclined to believe Herder, transported to a bookstore of the  21st-century, would scoff, pass the laminated picture-book and root around for something in the Used Philosophy section. It is difficult to imagine the man reconsidering, finding some hidden clarity about grief in the images. One who sees maps of misery in evaporated salt crystals is approaching the confused condition of the paleontologist and his zoology-in-miniature.

For others, there is no meaningless mote or picayune speck in the world. I am reading both the journals and a biography of Jesuit monk and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who believed every object, under scrutiny, would reveal an intensely particular inscape, an inner geography unique to itself. A gardener quoted in The Playfulness of Hopkins demonstrates some of the peculiar behavior the man demonstrated in his search of inscape: “I saw him the other day in the garden turning round and round and looking at a piece of glass in the path. I took him for a natural [a child, an idiot].”

Hopkin’s, I think, if he were to come across The Topography of Tears would not immediately scoff at Fisher’s magnified images. If the innards of a tear were not worthy of examination it would surely be the photographer’s fault, or else it would be Gods’, which is impossible.

His artistic sensibility went hand-in-hand with his cosmology.There is an anecdote in Hopkin’s notebook that he performed a trick on a duck—he hypnotizes the thing by drawing a white chalk line extending from its beak. The act will freeze certain birds. (This phenomenon can be observed in the arguably elevated world of Herzog films to the arguably lowly world of youtube shorts.) Hopkins believed the duck became so riveted by the inscape of the white chalk line that it entered a sort of holy paralysis, forgetting its whereabouts and staring endlessly at some hidden miracle. This is at odds with the usual explanation: that the bird is entrapped in some dreadfully extended misapprehension about the nature of the chalk-line, a sort of avian pareidolia.

image

Herzog, the other bird-hypnotizer, was afraid of the stupidity in the eyes of the chicken, the frantic pace with which they twist their heads and turn their eyes. They are a symbol of frantic attention spans, unable to focus on anything of worth for very long, their picture of the world a glut of cursory glances.

That mad paleontologist, perhaps unable to focus on ancient algae remains any longer, perhaps reviving a youthful and hopeless dream to revolutionize the world, allowed his momentary misapprehension become a life-long delusion. Fisher, unlike Herder, obviously believed that seeing a comment on grief in a tear is a worthy experience, if only for a while.These bouts are certainly better than seeing the world in an endless glimpse, but where to draw the line?

image

Ephemeris, interim.

Kathe Kollwitz, The March of the Weavers. Engraving. 1897. Stadtmuseum, Munich, Germany.

Though the brutal winter appears to be retreating with its last snows, and the malchicks buzz with Lydia Davis, Renata Adler, and David Ohle, I must admit that things do not look as bright as they might. A Bernhardtian hangover? Eh? A lack of indulgence for the Prousts, Musils, Knausgaards, and Ferrantes? Or perhaps I just want things to be simpler and more narrative. Springtime, when the dogwood blossoms remind me of a certain some would say too dearly departed. Another Easter having failed even in my sham Catholicism, motivated primarily by an unread affection for the medieval logicians, and for whoever wanted to keep Aristotle alive in the west, and for that Plotinus, experiencing his revival in some whirlpools of the academy, and this Passover Seder is late. 

But, for the very first time I have gone sugaring this weekend, utterly by accident. Lo and it was a good maple boil all around, in a dark wood shed at the top of a hill, replete with winding mud drive, Gus, the dumb doe-eyed black lab lumbering, an old timer hard-of-hearing in the corner, and a tall Vermonter as master-of-ceremonies, tossing wood into the fire and shoving the cast-iron door shut with a scuffed boot. We had cans of beer, snacks, crullers–“crawlers”–and whisky to mix with the sap. And there I was expecting my first time would be all cretons and tire a l’erable. Alas there was even a laconic dairy farmer of my acquaintance and his earnest paramour smiling on the works. I spent the weekend between them and WASPs hashing over which Caribbean Island was the breeziest. On the other hand Grandma is a real gem of the Romantic tradition, staunchly Country Mouse. Come back soon, dear.

But back at the ranch things have been, well, mixed. While yours truly sees little of the outside world, as a working dame, it seems The Word has had its 40th anniversary party, Adrian King-Edwards presiding. The venerable QDM has a reading with Robert imminently, Mr. Wells & Ms. Sarah also en-billed. The last hide or hair of old Argo crew I ran into, he porting all black, was outside the Notre Dame laundromat. And I’m sorry to report that the Coen Brothers’ own Canadian Poet Norm Sibum has been down-for-the-count in a certain Jewish General, news of which must be saved for his own telling, perhaps another day.

We have been watching a certain rather outmoded Slovenian cultural critic-cum-superstar, he of the sweaty black t-shirt, he of the strained Lacan exegesis, he of the supermodel wives, exhort that perhaps ours is a time to not act, only think. About some way for the overturn of capitalism in its two predominant flavors– authoritarian and neoliberal–to be in favor of something that includes genuine pluralism and individual rights. Which we will not have at the hands of demagogues, Christian or otherwise. Forgive me if the time to get out in the streets against Bill C-51, or more cutbacks, or tear-gas-cannisters-to-the-face seems altogether too short for getting one’s Hegel, Marx, Feuerbach, and Adorno down. 

Maybe the failure of American dreaming isn’t as robust as old world cynicism, where politics are concerned, and Sibum and I are just immigrant fire & brimstoners. Though our communal politico-aesthetic natter is falling short of something. The us & them stock narratives, resistance to it, or ArtNews, while I suspect that postmodernism is convenient for oligarchy: there are some nice haps among the young writers of the city, capturing a zeitgeist, enjoying the boons of CSS3 on the World Wide Web. Preoccupation with jadedness is a timeless form. And politics of reform will remain in mired in the symbolic, the stock in trade of critique.

I think the Roman analogy falters. Where their cultural heritage was of mythic, Homeric, and tragic Greece, fueled by character, our collective struggle may be more Rommel in the Reich or The Wire–attempts to stick our collective fingers in a broken dyke. It could be the spring again, but methinks on the Black Block…

Ephemeris

Mary Harman, Soupe du Jour
Mary Harman. Soupe du jour. 2015. 16x16 inches. Acrylic on linen/wood panel.

It could well be that Irish Harpy and her retinue (hubbie and fils) are eminently sensible people, and have little truck with public intellectuals. It could be, but it is not a given. They are likely to have truck with Dr Phil, and failing him, to go about mouthing lines of Basil Bunting when in the mall. Brag, sweet tenor bull. Cheeky of them, I know. Morning. Nikas. And Alexandra the waitress butters toast. The situation of Greece with respect to the European Union troubles her mind, crowding out, thereby, such thoughts as her favourite TV shows might generate. TV shows are a conversational lifeline between her and the regulars. Even so, life is good more or less, however much in Greece things are dicey. Back in the 80s, Vancouver, and I used to say that the more progressive types in the area had a penchant for underestimating their political adversaries and outright enemies, the phenomenon that was to be Preston Manning a case in point. Perhaps life was too good in Lotus Land. Subsequently I could have cared less for politics until the Clinton impeachment trials fired up, and not because I had any regard for Willie—I had none, but because I had a feeling that that bit of political theatre was crossing some line from which there would be no going back; and there was no going back, as it turned out; and then—the Bush years and so forth and so on. As it is with a Chinese box, one nightmare contains another—Last night I went to bewail the collapse of the imagination and the liberal spirit in a bar with Miss Gill and McGravitas, but the latter entity was on one of his anxiety-fuelled verbal jags. That is to say, he applied all the conversational leverage that there was to apply whilst Miss Gill ‘bended’ in the wind, so to speak, and asked the pertinent questions and poured gas on the fire. I thought I was in a scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I tried to follow along, but there was always some debacle in a corner of my brain obtruding on the moment like a piece of bone breaking through the flesh. Syria, for instance. “What a boring man you’ve become,” I said to myself, in light of my mental state; and though I can chat it up with the best of them, I simply could not induce my tongue to do its business.  Fiddler’s Green, and the students were all shoulder to shoulder babbling and enthusing. Les Canadiens started out well, but were soon enough getting thrashed on the various screens that were windows into the soul—The other day a friend of mine, and as if I had never been to one, described for me a poetry reading he once attended, the reader a figurehead for the avant-garde set. My friend spoke of how the man began to utter the word milk, and utter and utter and utter it, the entire utterance taking up all of five minutes, whereupon a woman seated behind my friend remarked: “Ah, milk. Good word.” At which point my friend had a time of it trying to suppress his giggles and quash his internal cries of horror. It is not that one man’s pleasure is another’s poison, but that one man’s new dawn is often enough another fella’s slippery slope to hell. Alexandra the waitress does have the bearing of a priestess-oracle, just that, with the aid of beauty products, she would really like to stay forever young, and Apollo can go and interpret himself. I cannot say as I blame her. No, not at all. In addition, for this post, there does not seem to be any offering from signor Leopardi. Apologies all around. But something in the atmosphere has been disrupting the signals—





Contributor Norm Sibum writes the column Ephemeris. He has been writing and publishing poetry for over thirty years. Born in Oberammergau in 1947, he grew up in Germany, Alaska, Utah, and Washington before moving to Vancouver in 1968. He has published several volumes of poetry in Canada and England. A Canadian citizen, Sibum currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Mary Harman, Church & School. Oil on Canvas, 14 x 24", from the series Vale Perkins

My stationer guys, middle-aged Armenians who went to school in Istanbul, tell me it is best not to rate a politician until you can see how she or he behaves with power at their disposal. Seems a sensible outlook. And while I bring these two mild-mannered men of business a respectable amount of business, they add dimensions to my sentimental education, at no charge—Went to a guitar recital the other night, David Russell the eminence in town, and in the course of the Bach part of the program, I concluded that, in spite of Mr Russell’s mastery, Bach on the guitar never quite comes off like he does on the cello, et cetera. But how can you lose with Albéniz? Five encores followed the concluding ‘Asturias’, and either the Montrealers in attendance at the Salle Bourgie were suffering from a severe bout of cabin fever on account of the winter season or the laudations were truly heart-felt. In any case, here is a tough act to follow – from Leopardi’s Zibaldone:

Hope never abandons man as far as far as nature is concerned. But it does as far as reason is concerned. So it is mistaken to say, as some people do (the authors of La morale universelle, vol. 3), that suicide can only happen as a result of a kind of madness, since without it, it is impossible to lose hope entirely, etc. Actually, once religious beliefs are discounted, it is a happy and natural, though real and constant, state of madness to go on living and hoping, one utterly contrary to reason, which shows us all too clearly that there is no hope for us
—One does not often detect rogue outbreaks of humour in Leopardi—And we went to see Leviathan, the Moesian, the Countessa and I, and then repaired to a suitably abysmal bar afterward, this in light of the vast quantities of vodka that were consumed in the movie by the protagonists, all of whom were fatally ensnared by a tractor beam, or the true gravitational force of power and politics such as entails doom for some and increased holdings of real estate for others. We deemed the flick the next masterpiece after The Great Beauty, 15 years into the new century, if for no other reason than that Julia Roberts did not portray Lilia and Tom Cruise did not vamp through Kolya’s role and then, having done his prison time, and having bulked up his musculature all the while, come out and blow away the evil-doers. But, in respect to the never-made sci-fi classic Dune, is Jodorowsky (Alejandro) a visionary or a flake with an excess of chutzpah to spare? These days, there is not much to distinguish between the two categories of human prescience. London Lunar, however, has idly reported to me that the best Catholics are bad Catholics, and presumably, he meant those who imbibe and otherwise carry on in some libidinous fashion or other, bucking all the various party lines that there are to buck, of which there are numberless editions. But rather than ‘buck’, perhaps it is best to just stand absolutely still now and then and let the madness pass by on either side of you, as when stampeding horses have got you in their sights in a narrow passageway between fences (as once happened to me on a ranch many years ago, and I have never forgotten just how ‘focused’ those animals were and how loud their galloping). `A woman can be proud and stiff / When on love intent; / But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.’ —Well, the lines above probably can have nothing to do with horses wild or otherwise, but they do stem from Yeats’s ‘Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop’, and they speak to something that has concerned or will concern any one of us now or later, here, there or anywhere—




Norm Sibum has been writing and publishing poetry for over thirty years. Born in Oberammergau in 1947, he grew up in Germany, Alaska, Utah, and Washington before moving to Vancouver in 1968. He has published several volumes of poetry and one novel, The Traymore Rooms in Canada and England. A Canadian citizen, Sibum currently lives and works in Montreal, Quebec.

Ephemeris by Norm Sibum


Mary Harman; Neighbors
Mary Harman. Neighbors 2012. Oil on Canvas.

Giacomo Leopardi, a great many years ago in another world, wrote that reason kills the spirit and illusion is the stuff of our happiness. Self-interest and self-love shore up the rest of human nature, as nature probably intended. I have no idea to what extent any of the above is true, but MH threw a party anyway, in the course of which Guitar Teach gave as eloquent a defense of the music of Mertz as one is likely to hear in this glass house we call western civilization. He said: “Well, I’m big on the guy.” JP, with infinite pains, cooked up the perogies which complemented MH’s borscht. There were Polish ham and salty herrings to consume; there were Russian verses to hear, and the Moesian even tickled our ears with something recited in the Serb tongue, the sense of which has escaped me now. McGravitas read out his splendid ‘The Port Inventory’, title poem to his Cormorant Press book, and he seemed to put real feeling into the delivery, perhaps because he thought he might win himself a bottle of booze with a strong performance. In any case, I was moved to reflect (seeing as I had now heard the beast read aloud any number of times), that it takes time to properly appreciate a poem, and that it follows that it takes time to develop a culture literary or otherwise. All this is to suggest that the attempt to artificially inseminate and fast-grow a literary scene with government funds and deem it all world-class has been madness of a kind. (It is not the disbursement of monies that we object to here, but the rationale.) London Lunar, who was not on hand in body but was hanging about in spirit, was heard to say that Hollywood with a heart invites the retort: “But sometimes one doesn’t want to be loved.” “Amen,” some true believer responded, with respect to a deathless legacy of Hollywood moosh or schmaltz or pap. The door prize McGravitas had coveted was not awarded; rather it was drawn for; and Literary Thug #1 was the happy recipient. Problem is, of the largesse he got not a taste, as it was promptly uncapped and knocked back by various vodka hounds still on the premises; and it was about as winsome a look as I have ever seen on a human countenance, that look on Literary Thug #1’s mug, the one that said: “Can’t win. And what a lot of pikers and scoundrels people are.” Now the previous evening, there had been yet another dinner party in the course of which the Shillong Kid and Golden Girl introduced their guests to a game called Cards against Humanity. If ever proof was required for the total collapse of liberal values, this was it, however amiably tongue in cheek the game’s intention. Which was to make money, no doubt. And to raise snow-covered roofs with convulsive bouts of snickering. A question arose as to whether these times of ours could in any way be compared to, say, Europe of the 30s and 40s. And it was suggested that perhaps any plausible enough answer would hinge upon what is meant by moral depravity. Such mirth as the game seemed to produce depended on weird juxtapositions of the ludicrous and the smutty and so, either mass culture had indeed attained a significant level of sophistication and was no longer under the thumb of the demons in its closets, cheap hilarity one’s consequent spiritual reward, or, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue”. Yonder stands your orphan with his gun. And so forth and so on. Lunch hour. Nikas. Her husband back in Greece, Alexandra the waitress tells me that every house there smells of burnt meat just now, as it is a “holiday before Easter”. Moreover, the people are confused and undecided. They know they want change, yes, but can their new leaders—sticks in the eye of a Europe that perhaps took Greeks too much for granted—deliver on their promises? Alexandra shrugs. “Could be catastrophe,” she says, employing a word that I do not believe she knew to use a year or two ago. I then half expected her to quote from Euripides on the weak prevailing against the strong, but she shrugged again, and said: “Well, it had to come to this.”